We've all heard some local hotshot guitar player say something like, "Scales? I don't play scales, man, they're just for jazz players." You know the kind: It's the guy or girl who taught themselves by ear and knows every Stevie Ray, Kirk Hammett, or Satch riff like the back of his or her favorite blond (hey, it could be rosewood, we won't discriminate here).
Listen up dudes and dudettes: Whether you know you're using them or not, any time you string a couple of single notes together, you're playing a piece of a scale. Accept it or go home crying. When that amp goes live there are only three seriously useful things you can play on a guitar anyway: chords (three or more notes), intervals (two notes played simultaneously), and scale-based melodies (single notes). So, since you can't avoid them no matter what you do, your playing can only improve with a working knowledge of what scales are all about. Here's some scaly wisdom to live and die for:
Can You Hear Me?
All of us in the Western world hear scales pretty much the same way (as opposed to, say, sitar players in India, or koto players in Japan). Y'know what I'm sayin'? I'm talking about the whole do-re-mi thing here. If someone who knows scales sits you down and plays a regular, modern day, major scale, and then plays you the same scale but screws it up, you'll be able to tell them which scale is right and which one is wrong, whether you think you can or not. Believe me, you can.
Even without musical training, the music we've heard on radio and TV all our lives has so ingrained each and every one of us with the "correct" sound, that it would be pretty unlikely for even the most tone-deaf of us not to be able to pick out the right scale when given an actual choice.
The Super-Harmonic Diatonic
Let's dig into that basic major scale real quick. Notice there are eight notes in the scale, or eight notes in an octave. Actually the first note and the eighth note are the same note, just an octave apart. This is what is referred to as a diatonic scale. You've heard of pentatonic scales. The pentatonic is a shortened version of a diatonic scale, which is in turn a shortened version of a chromatic scale. We'll get to those in another column.
For now we'll use the C major diatonic scale for all the examples in this column. The C major scale is spelled C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. There are no sharps or flats in the C major scale, so it's easier to work with at this point.
Now, if you were to draw a diagram of the guitar neck - and this is a good exercise, try it at home - then put a dot on every note that fits in the C major scale, you'd realize that there's no way in hell you're going to remember all those notes. You'd never be able to play a solo or melody using the whole guitar neck, throwing in all those notes, because there is no way you're going to remember where they all are. (You might not want to use the whole guitar neck in your own playing, but why limit yourself?, Just go with me on this one.)
So you want to break that bunch of notes down into manageable chunks - hand-sized sections, which means basically four or five frets at a time. Now we're getting' somewhere. Once you do that you realize that, if you break that whole bunch of notes into patterns that fit your hand, each pattern begins on a different note of the C major scale. This makes sense. Why not start a different pattern on each note of the scale? It works real well.
There are seven patterns in all. By the time you get to where the eighth pattern would be, you're playing the same thing you played 12 frets - one octave - down the neck. So right there is where the patterns start to repeat. After that, all the patterns repeat in order until you run out of neck.
The Seven Scale Positions
Here's the seven patterns:
Figure 2 shows the C major scale played starting with the open sixth string, the low E on the guitar. This one's a bit tough for those of us who don't use open strings a lot, but you'll also use this same pattern higher up the neck, without the open strings. The pattern repeats when you put your first finger on E at the 12th fret on the sixth string. Give it a try now to see how it feels. You'll see after awhile that it's actually a really useful pattern.
Figure 3 shows the C major scale played starting with your first finger on F at the 1st fret on the sixth string.
Figure 4 has the C scale starting on G at the 3rd fret on the sixth string, again with your first finger.
Figure 5 begins on A at the 5th fret on the sixth string. It starts with your first finger again. Get it? All seven patterns start with your first finger playing a different note from the major scale on the sixth string. I said we were going to cut this monster down into hand-sized chunks, and that's exactly what we did. This particular pattern is going to be extremely important to you after awhile. If you know your basic pentatonic scale, you can probably see that this pattern is almost the same thing. We'll explore that in a future column.
Figure 6 starts with the first finger on B at the 7th fret on the sixth string. This position is the pattern that most people recognize as the major scale, though they would probably skip the B and start on the next note, C, with their second finger. But now you know better: This is just one of seven different patterns that are all part of the same major scale.
Figure 7 begins on C, and since we're working with the C major scale, you would think that this would be the pattern that most people would know as a major scale. But it's not quite as easy to play as the pattern in Figure 6, so it never achieved the same fame and fortune. Ah, the bittersweet life of a cult favorite.
Figure 8 begins on D at the 10th fret on the sixth string. This pattern also resembles the basic pentatonic scale that Figure 5 brought to mind. Notice how similar this pattern is to Figure 5. Make note of which notes are different - there are only a couple - and how you change from one to the other. This is going to be very important to you one fine day.
Now, play the pattern in Figure 2 beginning with your first finger on E at the 12th fret on the sixth string. It's another one that's kind of similar to your basic pentatonic pattern. I'm starting to see something hereI predict that in your future you will use Figures 2, 5, and 8 in some sort of interchangeable, super-cool, melodic way. I'll look into my crystal ball and tell you how in another column. That will be $5 please.
But Wait, There's More
I'm not going to let you off the hook just yet. Now that we're getting' way up there on the neck, you might as well keep goin' until you run out of frets. Unless you're on an acoustic, of course. In that case, never mind. But if you've got an electric, or an acoustic with a cutaway, you'll be able to reach a few more frets.
Put your first finger on F at the 13th fret on the sixth string and play the same pattern you learned in Figure 3. Then play the pattern from Figure 4 starting on G at the 15th fret. You're also going to want to play Figure 5 starting on A at the 17th fret. The truly adventurous will also work on Figure 6 beginning on B at the 19th fret, but you might have to work really hard to fit all your fingers in that high up the neck. Do whatever works up here (use just your first three fingers if necessary).
My Brain Hurts, Make It Stop
No, not yet. There's more you need to understand before this will really mean anything to you and your playing. How many songs do you actually know in the key of C major? Not that many right? So why did I show you all these examples in C? Because it's easier to learn this stuff using a key that has no sharps or flats. This way you can clearly see that a diatonic major scale has one of each letter in the musical alphabet. Diatonic scales in all the other keys are the same: They include one of each letter, but they also have some combination of sharps or flats (never both, always one or the other).
So how do you take all this great info and use it in all the other keys, or at least the two keys that matter most to guitar players - E and A? Well, I have some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that you can take these seven scale patterns and just move them up and down the neck until you've got them in the right place for the key your song is in. The bad news is that you've got to be able to understand the diatonic major scale in one more way to be able to move the scale patterns around without causing yourself a nervous breakdown.
As you work on each of these patterns, pay attention to which "step" of the C major scale each pattern begins on. We're going to give each of these steps a number. When you play the pattern that begins on C (Figure 7), you're playing a scale starting on the root note of the scale or key. So that note, C, and the pattern that begins on it is referred to as 1. D is the 2nd note in the C scale, so the pattern that begins on D is the 2nd pattern. Obviously then, E is three, F is four, G is five, A is six, and B is seven.
So How Do I Play These Patterns in Another Key?
Let's say you want to play a song in A. Take the pattern that you just learned was the number one pattern and begin it on A at the 5th fret on the sixth string. Play that scale pattern and pay attention to which notes are in the key of A. If you play the right pattern, the pattern shown in figure 7 above, you'll play the notes A-B-C-sharp-D-E-F-sharp-G-sharp-A. From there you can figure out that the pattern that was the number two pattern in the key of C, the pattern that began on D, should begin on the second note in the A scale, B, at the 7th fret. The pattern that was number three in the key of C, the pattern that began on E, should now begin on C-sharp if you're going to play the right notes for the key of A.
It may seem like you're going to have to do a whole lot of work, and memorize a whole bunch of things to put these scale patterns to use, but that's not quite true. You only have to get the finger patterns into your memory, and there are only seven of those. After you play them all for awhile, you'll discover that about three of them feel better to your hand than the others, and in general you'll use those most of the time. I'm not going to tell you which patterns those are right now; you'll feel it when you play them. But in a future column I'll tear into those three patterns and show you some cool riffs you can pull out of them. Also, it will get easier to remember where to play all the patterns for the key your song is in after you've worked on "transposing" (moving a pattern from one key to the next) a few times.
One More Kind of Important Thing
Now that you've learned the seven diatonic scale patterns, and you've tried to use them to solo over songs you know, you might have found that they sound too - I don't know.happy - for the music you play. Maybe not. Maybe these patterns fit just right with your music. If that's the case, then you're playing primarily major key stuff. A lot of pop is major key, such as Beatles influenced music. Most country music is major key as well.
But if the sound is too happy for you (all you metal-heads will know what I mean by this), don't worry. It's easy to fix. It's got to do with the concept of relative major and minor keys. I'll explain all that in a future column. In the meantime though, remember how the pattern shown in Figure 5 above, the C major scale pattern that started on the note A, resembled the basic blues and rock pentatonic pattern? There's your main clue. Mess with that, and I'll make it all clear real soon. (Don't stop working on these seven patterns though, because they're the same exact seven you'll need to know, you'll just have to know how to adjust their positioning on the neck for the type of music you're playing.)
Now Get To It
For now just start working those seven patterns into your subconscious. Play them 'til your hands always know where to go without even thinking about it, without looking at the neck of the guitar. Play each pattern over and over again until you never play any wrong notes in that pattern. Then do the same with the next pattern.
To practice these patterns and drill them into your head, play each pattern starting on every possible fret on the neck. Just move the patterns up and down the neck, one fret at a time, and play them over and over until you run out of neck. Then do the same with the next pattern. Use alternate picking (down-up-down-up), and play the patterns forward and backward and forward again, until each of the seven is completely burned into your memory. Am I being too repetitive here? Get used to it. One way or another, you'll be playing these seven scale patterns for the rest of your life.